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Geoengineering: a radical way to fix the climate or an imminent threat to humanity?

Nicholas Folidis explores how geoengineering could save our planet

It was November 2015 when delegates from 195 countries gathered in Paris in light of the United Nations Climate Change Conference. On December 12, of the same year, all parties finally reached a consensus; a landmark agreement called the ‘Paris Climate Accord’. Simply put, the Paris Agreement is a pledge by all UN member-countries to reduce their emissions and greenhouse gases in an effort to prevent the Earth’s average temperature from rising and maintain it well below 2oC above pre-industrial levels.

The Paris Agreement may be one of the greatest, and most ambitious, diplomatic victories in history, but it is far from perfect. Scientists believe that the temperatures are highly likely to breach the 2oC threshold and reach as high as 2.7oC or even 3oC above pre-industrial levels. Emission caps are still too loose and, on top of that, the agreement is not legally binding, meaning that signatory countries can easily withdraw from the pact (just like the United States earlier this year on June 2017).

Perhaps we need to take more radical measures to protect our environment, or at least consider a ‘Plan B’ before it is too late. Geoengineering, otherwise known as ‘climate engineering’, is the rapidly emerging field concerned with counteracting the effects of climate change, or even averting global warming altogether, through deliberate large-scale intervention on the Earth’s climatic system.

The whole concept of geoengineering seems far-fetched and over-optimistic or even rather terrifying; it might as well be the plot of a science-fiction movie. The truth is that geoengineering can be as simple as planting a lot of trees to decrease CO2 levels in the atmosphere or as complex as seeding heat-trapping clouds with ice crystals to drastically cool them down; or even spraying sulphate particles into the stratosphere to mimic the cooling effect of volcanoes, where, combined with water vapour they would create a haze that in turn would surround the planet and reflect roughly 1% of the sunlight away from the Earth.

There are plenty of other techniques proposed, such as deploying massive space shields to deflect the sun’s rays, increasing the reflectiveness of clouds and, in many cases, crops to reflect heat back into space, or even refreezing parts of the Arctic that have been affected by climate change and fertilising the ocean with iron fillings to stimulate CO2-eating plankton.

Such strategies have been at the centre of scientific discussions for many years but due to the severity of the subject those conversations mainly took place behind closed doors until only recently. Opinions continue to differ and the science is not settled yet. Scientists like Canadian solar geoengineering expert, and Harvard professor of applied physics and public policy, David Keith, are frustrated by the so-far slow response of countries and governments worldwide to cutting emissions and believe that geoengineering approaches are our best bet in reducing some of the climate risks that come from the accumulated carbon dioxide.

Comparatively, scientists like Pat Mooney, of Ottawa-based ETC Group, an international non-profit organisation monitoring the effects of emerging technologies, oppose such intervention. Mooney is afraid of not only the unforeseen impact of such techniques but also the possible recklessness with which governments and big corporations are going to address the issue.

As promising or pioneering these approaches may sound, their effects remain still unknown. Clear guidelines and safeguards for research must be set first to ensure scientific integrity and safety. According to a report on climate intervention experiments, published by the American Chemical Society, it was recommended that “countries establish international governance and oversight for large-scale field tests and experiments that could significantly modify the environment or affect society” in order to avoid causing irreversible damage to the climate and the environment. In fact, the Royal Society is currently in collaboration with various organisations trying to develop such guidelines to ensure research is carried out in an environmentally responsible manner.

Surely geoengineering is an exciting and promising field but also equally controversial that, for the time being, should only act as our last resort.

From Issue 14

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